Last War Supplemental May Provoke a Frenzy

Posted April 24, 2009 at 4:46pm

“Issues of the Week— will appear every Monday in Roll Call when Congress is in session. This new feature highlights the upcoming agenda and includes a quick look at the people and pressures behind the legislative activity.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this month he was confident lawmakers would set aside their own needs and work for quick passage of a war spending bill, he may have been ignoring the old adage that all politics is local.

“My hope is … the Members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole,— Gates said when he outlined the Obama administration’s war spending plan and asked that Congress resist larding it with unneeded spending.

Despite his plea, lawmakers this week will begin adding to the administration’s request billions of dollars that would benefit weapons contractors in their home states and districts.

Those efforts are taking on greater urgency for many Members for two reasons: The Obama administration intends to end the practice of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through special supplemental spending bills, eliminating a popular vehicle for funding other defense projects. And there is a bipartisan push under way to reduce weapons contract overruns.

Both the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees on Defense could meet as early as this week to mark up the Obama administration’s $83.4 billion supplemental request, which contains $75.5 billion for fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Most of the remainder would go for foreign aid.

Details are still being sorted out, but lawmakers and aides suggest $10 billion to $20 billion could be tacked onto the supplemental before it heads to the president’s desk before Memorial Day. Some candidates for increased spending include: the Air Force’s C-17 aircraft programs, Army Stryker ground vehicles and perhaps some Navy ships.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) recently wrote the Senate Appropriations Committee calling for buying 15 more Boeing-manufactured C-17 cargo aircraft for the Air Force. They said the aircraft are an “indispensible asset— but they did not mention that the billions of dollars to buy those aircraft would support large Boeing manufacturing plants in their states.

The Pentagon has not sought additional C-17 funding for several years, but Congress has consistently added several billon dollars for the program, which employs 30,000 people in more than 40 states.

Two key players in the defense spending process — Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) — might add a provision to the bill that would force the Pentagon to choose two contractors to build its next-generation aerial refueling tanker. Gates has consistently said that option is too expensive and wants to hire only one contractor.

However, lawmakers could decide the $35 billion price tag for the aircraft is too big a prize for just one contractor. Defense giants Boeing and Northrop Grumman are expected to compete for the work and neither would pass up even a split-buy.

This week, the desire for increased weapons spending will run headlong into the push for overhauling weapons buying rules to tame the Pentagon’s legendary cost overruns and schedule delays.

Leading Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees are backing legislation that would make it easier for the Pentagon to end contracts facing overruns and would require more contractor competition. The Senate could consider the legislation as early as this week, while the House acquisition reform bill will be formally unveiled today.

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said last week the legislation in both chambers would seek to “inject greater efficiency into the weapons acquisition system and truly ensure that we get the most bang for our taxpayer buck.—

Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said the legislation is long overdue because the $300 billion in cost overruns for major weapons, estimated by the Government Accountability Office last month, would be enough to pay the salaries for all military service members for two and a half years.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) noted that fundamental flaws are “endemic to our acquisition system.— Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who also backs the bill, said, “A train wreck is coming— if the process is not reformed.